Three years ago, the first protests of the Arab Spring began in Tunisia with Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation. This grocer’s personal protest, for which he gave his life, commenced a level of unprecedented protest in many circles throughout the Islamic world, especially among young people. The sounds and demands for change, democracy, liberalization, anti-militarism, and moderation were heard in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Turkey, and even Saudi Arabia. Not all the responses were bloodless or successful, but change appeared to be in the air. Today seems like a lifetime since then, as one senses much of the Muslim world is reverting back to where it was in 2010, and the Arab Spring appears to be headed toward a passing phase in the timeline of history.
In Egypt, the military authoritarian government of Hosni Mubarak was overthrown by protesters in Tahrir Square supported by the military; free, democratic elections followed which brought in a Muslim Brotherhood-led regime. It was not open to compromise or power-sharing. It in turn was overthrown by a military-led group, which reverted back to the old values and put President Morsi in jail. People in the streets are afraid once again of the authoritarian power of the reinstated military regime.
In Libya, President Muammar Qaddafi has been gone — thanks in large part to Western intercessions — for almost three years but the country appears to be run by a group of revolutionary tribal leaders who have a limited semblance of government in place. The petroleum is flowing but positive, progressive political progress is nowhere in the wings.
In Syria, a revolt and subsequent civil war — which began later than most of the Arab Spring — has produced the most casualties, the greatest human tragedy, and the least amount of change. It seems that after 120,000 or more dead, hundreds of thousands wounded, and millions of refugees within Syria and without, the regime of Bashar al-Assad is more stable than ever. Despite assorted forms of protest and a phalanx of anti-Assad militias arrayed against him, he and his military have demonstrated sufficient power within plus support from without to have placed the regime in a more formidable place than before the protests.
In Turkey, Prime Minister Erdogan was determined to make his country the major rising political force in the region. Emerging from the most moderate Muslim country in the region, Erdogan placated or expropriated the Muslim radicals, sought to find sympathetic linkages with Islamic clerics, and added a comfort level for the critical military as well. While he is barred from a fourth term as prime minister in the next parliamentary elections this summer, many wonder if Erdogan would tinker with the constitution in order to transfer greater political power to the president, an office to which he could then aspire. Of late, Erdogan has run into extensive charges of corruption leveled at his own ministers and the military by religious and U.S.-based Turkish opposition leaders.
Saudi Arabia, which never experienced any revolt, has begun to flirt with expanding women’s rights and improving educational opportunities. While hardly relaxing the dominant Islamic rule, the Saudi leaders clearly have been affected internally and geopolitically by the turmoil in the region; so too, have Yemen, Bahrain, and the other Gulf States.
All of this activity leaves the realists in the United States and the West aware of how little has changed in the Middle East despite tremendously heightened expectations and upheaval. Liberal democracy may never have been in the cards. Yet the United States was never willing to make good on threats to punish autocrats in Syria and Iran.
As for Israel and its supporters, they can say “I told you so” (although that’s hardly the most mature way to respond). In fact, sadly, despite being the only true liberal democracy in the Middle East, Israel’s status and place in the region has not been enhanced by the demise of the Arab Spring.